We left Vienna on Monday evening at about 7ish. We were to take a night train to Florence, Italy. We basically took over an entire traincar full of sleeping berths except for one poor room with a few people stuck in the middle of 30 BYU students with way too much energy. I only saw these travel partners once or twice but they looked as if they wanted to hurl themselves off the train. Hahahahaha…we stayed up for a while on the train playing games and generally having a good time, spent 20 minutes or so trying to understand the randomly shaped train sheets (never figured that one out) and finally fell asleep while chugging across the Italian countryside. We were awakened at about 6:00 AM by one of the cranky train attendants and were told that we had about 30 minutes until the train arrived at it’s destination. Naturally, we all rolled back over and figured we’d sleep for 29 more minutes. Then the train stopped. We all groaned and carried on for a few minutes until someone had the bright idea to look out a window. We heard a shout from the other end of the car “Hey! This is Florence!” It slowly dawned on everyone simultaneously that we were IN Florence and that if we didn’t get off the train pronto there would be unfortunate consequences. Chaos ensued. Students running around, collecting baggage, tying shoes while hopping down the hall, fifteen girls trying to use the bathroom in less than 2 minutes. We must have been quite the sight. Fortunately, everyone in our group managed to get their luggage and get off the train safely. We walked through the dark streets of Florence until we found our hotel and found out there (at about 7:00) that we couldn’t check in until noon. Oh the horror. Everyone was either in pajamas or nasty day-old street clothes that had been slept in on the train. We rapidly gave up any idea of smelling better than garbage and just dropped our luggage and went out into the city.
First order of business was the Dome. The Dome is right smack in the middle of Florence, a cathedral with supposedly the biggest free dome in Europe. If you’ve never been to Florence, I’ll tell you that the Dome is beautiful. The inside of the church is nothing terribly spectacular after all the other cathedrals in Europe, but the exterior and the inside of the dome itself was great. We climbed the steps up into the dome, checking out the painting of Dante’s inferno (Basically people getting disemboweled in Hell. Gotta love uplifting church pieces!) and finally onto the top. This was a beautiful look over the city, with all of the rooftops, gardens and market in our view. We climbed back down the tower, nearly getting motion sick from the tight spiraling staircases, and hit up the market we saw nearby. European markets are way too much fun. Lots of people selling everything from fresh fruit to pirated goods to useless junk. Everything is worth haggling about, as they usually start selling to tourists at about twice what they’ll actually get from someone who’s not getting fleeced. I ended up with a few nice Italian ties for 2 euros apiece. Not bad.
After checking into the hotel about noonish and eating a lovely little eggplant sandwich from a street vendor, Allyson, Heather and I went back out into the city and walked. Walked walked walked. We aren’t even sure how many miles we put on that day. We found a recommended (by my great little “Cheap eats in Italy” book) Gelato shop and tried the local specialty. Woohoo! Gelato was a hit. The fruit flavors we tried we intense. Gelato, incidentally, ended up being the weakness of many a young lady in our group. I have heard tales of upwards of nine scoops a day for some in Italy. I liked it, but not quite THAT much. Frozen custard still holds my crown as best frozen dessert. Later in the evening we went to Michaelangelo Piazza, a square on a hill overlooking the city and took in the sunset. At this point hunger was rapidly setting in and we followed a road back into the hills looking for a particular restaurant. An hour and a half later we gave up. We dragged our poor starving bodies all the way back into town, nearly fainting and stopped at one of the finest Neapolitan pizza places in town. We made a reservation for a half-hour later and found a clean patch of cement to collapse on during the wait. The pizza was worth all the starvation (Probably partially because of our intense hunger) and we polished off the day with a bit more Gelato.
Florence is a beautiful town. It is set amidst tree-covered hills and still holds a very renaissance feeling. This is where the Medici family really kick-started the arts and intellectualism that fueled the Italian renaissance. The who’s who list in Florence includes Michaelangelo, Donatello, Dante, Machiavelli and just goes on and on.
Wednesday: More walking. We started with a return to the market and then tried as hard as could to get lost. It worked fairly well, and took several hours to return to where we could figure out where we were. After a while we returned to the hotel to drop stuff off and prepare for the evening. We found a park in the area, played around a while on the swings and ran around like five-year-olds. Great fun. I think all of the Italians in the area thought us a bit strange but I’m sure they just dismissed us as crazy tourists and let it go. Florence is packed with an unreal amount of tourists. I was blown away. Going anywhere near the Dome in midday is like reliving the life of a canned sardine. It’s like a giant moshpit. Bleh. I don’t like tourist crowds much.
Our entire group met at the Uffizi museum at 4:20 to get in as a group. We got in at 5ish and just sort of dispersed. Allyson and I, not knowing as much as we possibly should about art, kind of just meandered around looking at things and having very little idea why they were important. The art is impressive, mind you, but a painting of some guy who was a random doctor in the 1600s has never really done it for me. After a while we decided there were better things to do and took off. We were quite hungry and looked for some type of fruit stand or market. We found a place with a little old Italian guy selling some fresh fruit and expected that to work out well but NO! This was one mean old Italian dude. I was picking up the fruit trying to decide which pear to buy and he completely freaked out on me. Started shouting at me to not touch the fruit and slipping back and forth in between Italian and English. Whoa…since when can you not touch fresh fruit at a fruit stand? It’s not fine art, my friend. Take a chill pill. I’m not just going to buy a piece of fruit because someone tells me it’s ripe…I decided to not buy anything there and moved on. We did find a little grocery store and picked up a little something there, including a pear that was nice and ripe (I’d know, I checked them all).
After finding some food we went on a hunt for cake. Our goal was to find a super-rich chocolate cake and somewhere to sit as it had started to drizzle a bit. We had no specific destination in mind, as we prefer to see where random roads lead, as we headed out on the search for cake. First we stopped at a little bar/lounge. The proprietor was very kind and re-opened the restaurant portion of his place for us to have some cake. I had cheesecake, Allyson carrot cake. The cake was fantastic and actually fairly cheap. We weren’t satisfied in our craving for sweets and went out again. At this point it was really starting to get going with the rain. We discovered that Liesl had conveniently forgotten her poncho in my bag and we used it to shield ourselves as we ran around the city. Again, the Italians must have been amused by two Americans running around holding a poncho over their heads trying to stay somewhat dry. We found a little coffee shop and bought a cake-like thing (Actually it turned out to be a bowl of frozen cream puffs covered in dark chocolate and hazelnuts) but when we bought it they told us we had to wait at least an hour to eat it. Well, we couldn’t wait that long so as we continued our poncho-and-now-cake-holding journey, we stopped into another café and got some pastries to hold us over until we could devour our chocolately treat. I got a pear-chocolate pastry that was surprisingly yummy and Allyson had a pineapple filled treat. When we eventually arrived at the hotel we messily plowed into our creampuff loveliness and got chocolate all over ourselves. After we had made ourselves completely ill we grudgingly shared the chocolate with others (making darn good friends in the process) and tried to convince our stomachs to forgive us.
Thursday morning we felt a little guilty for not having visited most of Florence’s museums and tourist attractions so we decided to join a large group going to the Academia in the morning. This is where the famous “David” by Michaelangelo is housed. It’s actually a fairly small museum, though impressive, and we were back out on the streets in no time. We continued our pattern of getting lost, but this time to the south. We walked past the Medici palace and gardens and just kept trucking until we found ourselves in the hills outside the city. This place was gorgeous. Beautiful windy streets, small towns, parks, fountains, hills, everything you could want. We took loads of pictures. Eventually we were a good 3-4 inches off the city map and the time was running short so we tried to find out where we were and how to get back. We stopped at a restaurant with a little map, asked for directions at a lovely hotel and managed to bump into a bus stop. Just as we walked towards the bus stop we heard a HUGE crack of thunder. A bus pulled up immediately, almost magically, and we stepped on as the heavens opened and the rains came down. As we watched from the dryness of the bus, the streets were literally filled with water and hail. Incredible timing. We weren’t sure exactly where the bus was going, but by speaking my lousy Spanish to the Italians I ascertained that it would, eventually, end up somewhere in Florence. We got off the bus in an area that seemed fairly well-used by tourists and, incredibly, were fairly close to our hotel. We lucked out all over the place that day. That night we were to jump a train to Venice but before we left we wanted to eat some lunch/dinner. We stopped at a good-looking restaurant with tomatoes and mushrooms in the window (I’m a sucker for restaurants with fresh tomatoes and mushrooms in the window. Works every time.) Once we got inside and were looking at the menu, Allyson pointed out a dish to me with truffles. TRUFFLES! I’ve been looking all over for those! One of my goals in coming to Europe, Italy especially, was to eat truffles. I ordered it in anticipation. Truffles have always been described to me as an amazing eating experience and I was not let down at all. They are fantastic. They are unlike anything else, and therefore impossible to describe, but they taste good and the smell coming off the sauce they were in was seriously like crack cocaine. I spent more time smelling my food than I did eating it. Very cool.
We grabbed our luggage, met up with the group and hopped on the train for Venice. Venice! How cool!
I’ve failed to mention that I was getting sick at this point. I’d had a slightly sore throat in Florence and on the way to Venice it decided to get serious. My nose was running and I had congestion. I wasn’t about to let that happen, though, so I took some cold pills and told it to go away. That worked marginally well.
I didn’t get really excited about Venice until we started across the narrow bridge that leads to the islands that are Venice. At that point I was running around the train, looking out the window and basically acting like a 9-year-old with a new toy. Venice! I’ve wanted to go to Venice for a loooong, long time.